Such feelings explain Gordon Wilson's magnanimous gesture in meeting the IRA. The hope is that a dovish element within the IRA may moderate demands for a British withdrawal and a united Ireland. Furthermore, IRA leaders might be persuaded that talking is a better way of achieving these more limited objectives. So big-hearted people such as Mr Wilson offer the olive branch.
Unfortunately, their hopes are based on scant evidence. There is no sign that the IRA would accommodate the aspirations of Unionists in its vision of a future Ireland. The republicans are now the only significant part of the nationalist spectrum to call for British withdrawal. Revisionism by an element within the IRA almost certainly would result in violent schism and death for the instigators. While many in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have developed their thinking, the IRA stance has ossified.
Meanwhile, the Armalite has won out over the ballot box. Increasingly indiscriminate violence seems to be the paramilitaries' only option. Sinn Fein has failed to win over voters. The electoral demise of the Workers Party, which sprang out of the Official IRA when it declared a ceasefire, offers a fair warning of what happens to republicans when they lay down their weapons.
Even so, what can be lost by talking? A great deal, is the answer. Negotiating would be a sign of weakness, encouraging the IRA belief that the war is winnable and that Britain will eventually withdraw from fatigue. The IRA will retire from the field only if it believes victory is impossible and the campaign has become an exercise in lethal futility.
Talking to the IRA would alienate the Unionists and, as during the IRA negotiations of the Seventies, drive them towards the loyalist paramilitaries. Meetings between British officials and the IRA would undercut the nationalist parties. They would also horrify the government of the Irish Republic, which greatly fears that a secret British-IRA deal would undermine the Irish state, by elevating the IRA.
So, for no gain, talks would damage relations with those democratic parties that may, in time, forge a pluralist solution and marginalise the paramilitaries. Instead of talking to the IRA, the Government should at last address the needs of the republican constituency: a bill of rights, fair employment practices, security that protects instead of harassing them, plus constitutional reform that acknowledges their sense of Irish identity.
Britain's denial of justice over decades is partly to blame for the growth of the IRA. Talking to the paramilitaries now instead of dealing with that injustice would be a further abdication of Britain's responsibility to ensure good government.